Leaving teaching to sell art and antiques

Ten years ago Dawn Birch-James was teaching languages. Listening to her now, and hearing all the drive and enthusiasm that she clearly throws into her collection of businesses, it’s hard to imagine her vigour and energy ever having been contained within the bureaucracy of a school.

“Well I was reaching the big 40 and I thought to myself, do I want to I stay in this profession? Plus the fact that I’d just got pregnant with my second child.”

“Teaching is extremely draining and you spend your days and evenings working, and you spend weekends working. When you go away for the weekend you take marking with you.”

“I’ve always been the sort of person that thinks for myself and I don’t like to think, well my husband will bail me out or whoever will bail me out because I’ve always earned money for myself and so I’ve always had that independent mind.”

“I’m quite organised and systematic but there is a big creative side in me. I bought an old house and then I started to collect old things. Going to retail or trade fairs and picking bits up and coming back with a car full of junk that I was going to paint or polish or mend or whatever. It starts to get under your skin a bit.”

“Then I thought, I’d just love to be an antique dealer like these people here and so I thought right, I started to buy things and just put them in the loft. I started in a very small way.”

“The bug started in 2001. I bought something from a charity shop and sold it on Ebay. I bought it for 50p and sold it for £6. Now, okay, that’s not a big deal but it actually was big deal. It showed I’d got an eye for a bargain and quality and then could re-sell it."

“So at this time I was still teaching full time and collecting things. It was a big pain in the backside at home no doubt! Then I relinquished all of my management responsibilities and went part time in 2002 and just went back to the chalk face, teaching as an ordinary classroom teacher.”

“Then the bottom fell out of the antiques market. Even seven or eight years ago, you couldn’t sell brown furniture any more. Before, you’d routinely be selling a Victorian chest of drawers, you now couldn’t sell them and it was difficult to even give them away.”

Time moves on, and you adapt to the market and you go with it

“Also the auction house used to be wholesale, and five or six years ago they had become retail and are selling directly to the public. And there is www.the-saleroom.com which is live auctioneering. A lot of dealers are resentful of it but I can’t give a monkeys.”

“So the market changed utterly and totally and I was in the middle of it so I had to rethink. I invested in new products alongside my antiques, as well as in a good e-commerce website, and I taught myself a bit about SEO, and that’s all been working really well.”

“I just feel that time moves on, and you adapt to the market and you go with it. I’m very proactive and I’m always looking for ways that I can enhance what I do. Because it is my second career I was starting from scratch. I did a masters degree in the art market.”

“People would say what are you doing that for, what use is it going to be? My view is whatever you do, you make use of it. As soon as I got the MA I started to use it on my signature on my emails. I opened an art gallery and then I approached a new magazine that came out in locally and now I’m writing articles for him about art.”

So far, Dawn’s not better off financially, although she thinks in the end she will be. “The spin off for me is that I don’t think I’m going to have an early heart attack now. I work as many hours as I did when I was teaching but it’s almost my choice and I’m in control.”

“Also you think, you know what, I created this by myself. This is my creation. There is no policy person sitting in Westminster dictating to me about how I ought to educate children. I’m not a political pawn. There’s nobody saying that I should have meaningless targets.”

And with Dawn’s seemingly limitless energy, it doesn’t seem surprising that things are going well for her. “It’s building blocks, okay. I’m really just working hard to scrape a living together. I’m not a spring chicken but I’ve got a lot of life left in me.”


Dawn Birch-James writes, and sells art, antiques, and decorative objects online and in person, www.activeantiques.com

Business size: 

One person

Business location: 

United Kingdom


Dawn has worked for herself for ten years

Image: Dawn Birch-James

About the author

Jessica Kennedy
Thursday, 1 December, 2011 - 23:00
United Kingdom

Jessica is an acupuncturist, www.jessicakennedy.com, and the founder of www.smallbiztribe.com.